How K-pop has given me an identity clash

Keeping up with my evolving multicultural identity

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Jason Ono is a Life Columnist for The Cavalier Daily.

Riley Walsh | Cavalier Daily

I grew up in Japan, surrounded by many enthusiastic fans of Asian idol groups. Whether at school, home or a friends’ house, everyone would be talking about K-pop idols and broadcasting their music. They were everywhere. Although I enjoy idol pop music to this day, I personally never went on to fervently follow these idols like some people around me did. Instead, I simply accepted their presence as a part of what constitutes my native culture.

Yes, the culture of enthusiastically following celebrities may not be exclusively Asian. There are certainly idol fans in the States too, like those who identify themselves as “Beliebers” and “Directioners.” Compared to the States, though, the extent to which idol pop culture is embedded in modern East Asian culture is unparalleled. Idols are on TV commercials, billboards and practically every kind of media platform.

So, why am I talking about this?

It’s because recently, I often find myself questioning the whole idol-enthusiast culture — why people spend so much time, energy and money on individuals that they are not likely to ever get to know, much less meet. There have even been people around me that demonstrate what seems like — at least to me — romantic affections for these idols.

Over the past four and a half years I’ve been in America, the country has continuously taught me individualist ideals — to continuously work hard and follow my passions, ultimately for my own interest, career exploration and happiness. Such ideals stand out particularly from East Asian culture, which puts equal emphasis on the harmony of groups and on the individual’s interest — hence its collectivistic culture.

I often think about how idol fans follow someone who has no direct impact on their individual goals or success, often sacrificing significant time and energy to do so. I believe that my growing attachment to more Western, individualist thinking is the source of my discomfort I’ve developed with the idol enthusiast culture.

One day, I decided to ask my sister — an idol-enthusiast herself — the question I wanted to ask.

“So, I get that your favorite idols are cool and amazing. I listen to their music, too. But where do you see yourself in this?”

She answered me in a way that indirectly scolded me, as if I wasn’t aware of something very plain and simple. It was avidly following their music careers that made her happy. Their smiles on camera gave her the energy to enjoy life more. It wasn’t about herself and them. It was just about them.

Since coming to the University, I’ve made friends who also follow Asian idol groups. Interestingly enough, their appreciation of the music seems to be some sort of middle ground between that of my own and of some of the more fervent fans I know back home. 

While they do seem to have some sort of personal attachment to their favorite idols, their appreciation of the music takes precedent. This seems to be rooted in a deeper awareness of the piece of culture as entertainment. Some mentioned how they appreciate the well-curated, marketed concept of their favorite group — others touched on how they see similarities between some aspects of modern idol culture and traditional values of Asian societies.

Believe it or not, I have been chewing over this topic for over a month. But over time, I think I can finally understand that what was bothering me is a lot simpler than I had thought. I realized that this is essentially a conflict between two different cultures — both of which I’ve associated myself with at some point in my life.

It’s confusing for me, too. The question of “Who am I?” no longer evokes a culturally homogeneous response from me like it would have before — when I only called Japan my “home.” I know that this will continue to change depending on where my life takes me next, and with whom I choose to surround myself with. To some extent, I think it is valid that I now feel challenged by a piece of culture that I used to feel comfortable with.

But it’s also not my place to reject this piece of culture that — ironically — feels almost foreign to me now. If anything, I can more clearly see the underlying importance behind acknowledging that each person will follow their passions in their own ways. I’m sure there are idol fans with different levels of enthusiasm, even in East Asia. As someone with a constantly-growing multicultural background, I should never be the one to make rash generalizations about cultural trends.

Bottom line? We each find our own way to make us happy doing what we want to do, and that’s the way it should be.

Jason Ono is a Life Columnist at The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at life@cavalierdaily.com.

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